“. . . folks need houses and stuff to eat, and the folks need metals and the folks need wheat. Folks need water and power dams. Folks need people and folks need the land.” Woody Guthrie, Talking Columbia

“The Church eventually made its peace with Galileo because, after all, the earth does go around the sun.” Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History

Since 1992, we have been committed to a salmon recovery program that is so complex, inconsistent, and uncertain that attempts to describe it take hundreds of pages. Fish bureaucrats outline intricate decision paths that are seldom actually taken. The most recent statements of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the statements of other salmon advocates, suggest that the goal of salmon recovery may be fifty years away, and we may never succeed.

Growing salmon does takes longer than growing corn, or rabbits, or even cattle, but not longer than growing trees. Recovering salmon will be like any agricultural enterprise. Its success will depend on the vagaries of the weather. It will depend on luck with the salmon stocks we choose to introduce. Some transplants work, like the salmon in New Zealand. Some don't.

If nature cooperates, every major river in the Pacific Northwest could be running with salmon. We have the hatcheries to do it, if we can focus on making them work before we dismantle them. But if the climate gets warmer and warmer, it’s just no realistic to expect to maintain large populations of cold-water fish.

It is surely true that what would be best for salmon would be a Pacific Northwest without humanity at all. But with humanity, and with dams to provide safe and clean electric power, conditions can still be good for salmon—if we choose to use technology to improve conditions for salmon and the salmon themselves. So far, the best has been the enemy of the good, with those pursuing the best destroying the good and achieving nothing.

Reintroducing Economic Considerations to Maximize the Benefits of Salmon Recovery Resources

Economics is the science to be employed to achieve the maximal benefits from a given set of resources. Salmon recovery resources are not unlimited. Even if we throw equity out the window and arbitrarily single out electric ratepayers as the sole taxpayers for salmon recovery, there are limits to how much we can collect. Thus we must prioritize all the available options for assisting salmon recovery in some rational manner, and comparing the cost-effectiveness is the only real way to do this.

We are certainly not doing it now. Right now, “[w]e are spending a lot of money trying to touch all the bases”, according to Mike Smith, a program manager for the Corps of Engineers. “Setting priorities, deciding which measures provide the biggest benefit for the least cost, that really hasn’t been part of the discussion.”1 Doug Marker, a staff member at the Northwest Power Planning Council, confirms this: “We have these cerebral discussions, but nothing really happens. You can’t say what you are getting, what was the result for the money spent.”2

The main problem is that no one with any fiscal accountability is involved in the process at all. Only at the grossest level was there any management at all through the overall Memorandum of Agreement salmon cap, and that “cap” is subject to constant renegotiation. The salmon budgeting process is a disaster. Congress needs to provide some structure here, and it ought to start by requiring a formal cost-benefit analysis of each salmon measure. And Congress must make sure that interested parties can challenge it in court for accuracy.


Quoted in L. Mapes, “River of No Return”, The Spokesman-Review, Sunday, July 28, 1996, at H2 (reprint ed.)

2 Quoted in id. at H7.

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